If not for Darden, Ray Atwood might never have snorkeled off the Galápagos Islands, where he and his wife, Judy, made new friends that sported flippers, wings and shells. A seal popped up nearby ready to play, a penguin family jumped off the rocks and swam toward them, and hundreds of green turtles surrounded them. “The animals were in the shallow water with us, floating in the tide. It was absolutely amazing, and the best hour I’ve ever spent in the water!” he said.
Ray, general manager of the Bahama Breeze restaurant in Tampa, FL, took the exotic trip last year after being named General Manager of the Year in 2017 (for the second time). He was awarded a Trip of a Lifetime — $15,000 toward his dream vacation anywhere in the world with anyone he wanted to take.
Ray chose the Galápagos Islands, a volcanic outpost off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, because it’s one of the world’s best destinations for wildlife viewing.
The Galápagos trip included eight days and seven nights on a yacht with his wife, 14 people from around the world and a naturalist. Each day, they hiked and snorkeled. “We weren’t there 10 minutes before we saw some blue-footed boobies with babies,” he said. They also spotted a flock of flamingos near a lake while hiking.
Ray first won General Manager of the Year in 2012, and for that Trip of a Lifetime, he chose Thailand. In 2013, he, his wife and their son Ryan spent four days on a boat in the Andaman Sea and scuba-dived 13 times including once at night.
In addition to the Trip of a Lifetime prizes, Ray has enjoyed visiting world-class resorts all over the country after earning Darden’s highest level of distinction, Diamond Club, eight times during his 20 years leading the Tampa restaurant. “The Diamond Club trip itself is completely over the top and wonderful. My wife and I often extend our Diamond Club trips to stay an extra week, rent a car and see the sights.”
Pressed about secrets to his success, Ray said, “I’ve been lucky to manage this spectacular waterfront location with a group of talented managers, several of whom have been with me since the restaurant opened in December 1998. I am very ‘old school.’ I pay attention to details, and I make sure the restaurant operates smoothly every day and every shift so we’re not running around solving problems all day. Then we can expand our vision and build sales in different ways.
“I’m not a firefighter. Firefighters put out fires. I don’t let the fires start. That’s always been my philosophy.”